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NFC: Aquarist as a naturalist


The Aquarist as a Naturalist

Robert Rice

2213 Prytania Circle
Navarre Florida

In the early days of the aquarium trade (the early 1900's) native species were all that most of us could get. We could not afford to acquire species such as Angelfish or Discus, even if we had known about them. Our knowledge of their needs was pretty limited there were no filters, power equipment, prepared foods, or any of the other luxuries we take for granted today. Yet in spite of these limitations the hobby prospered and grew. Our local fishes started the hobby off fine and for a decade or two they were enough to keep us happy.

Then came the lure of the exotics and the profits of importing them. Suddenly by the late 1930's the Native Fishes were a non issue usurped by the Guppy and all that came after them. With their demise in the Aquarium trade, the Aquarist who was a Naturalist became a dinosaur. An interesting but useless relic of days gone by. So memories of so many colorful species and their unique local names like the Jersey Discus (Blackbanded Sunfish) and the Kansas Cichlid (Central Longear) went to the wayside along with the men and women who pioneered the movement.

Now some seventy years later as things tend to do, we have come full circle in the aquarium trade. Much to the surprise of tropical fish importers, many Aquarist are becoming dissatisfied with the current cycle of importation and exploitation. We have chosen to look towards our roots, the way Aquarist got started almost a century ago. More and more of us are spending our free time studying local bodies of water in search of suitable aquarium species.

As a consequence Aquarist are surprised to find themselves becoming Naturalist. We did not intend it (at least I didn't) but you can't spend hours in the field searching and studying our Natural Resources without being affected. In much the same manner as Aldo Leopold started out over seventy years ago, we went to take something out of our wild places and instead we found those wild places took something out of us (apathy and ignorance in my case). We went to take something away and instead were taken in!

In the 1955 book by H. Axelrod, Atlas of Aquarium Fish almost 100 pages is spend on collecting tips, ichthyology and identification tips. Approximately 45 0f the 600 species mentioned are North American Native species. It is clear from the book that in those days there was a dash of Naturalist in most serious Aquarist. Since that time the hobby has changed a great deal and so has the Aquarist mentality . We have become less like Naturalist and more like tourist. Ask an Aquarist to name just one local non game species. You'd be surprised at the percentage who can not. When was the last time you saw anything about collecting in a mainstream publication? It's been a long time I'll bet! Has the hobby been reduced to a passive, sterile source of entertainment a kind of live Television? I hope not. I believe within the hobby a movement has begun to stir, a new generation of Aquarist is beginning to say I know we can do more, we can do better. This generation is rediscovering old roots and in the process rewriting some of the roles traditionally only held by professional Biologist. This new generation has become a proactive force in endangered species preservation. This generation has become Naturalist!

We are in a unique position in this country. We can stock our aquariums with beautiful durable fish that are the envy of much of the world. It costs us nothing more than a leisurely stroll down to the local pond or creek, and a fishing license (in most cases). We have largely ignored that opportunity. Aquarist seldom venture beyond the pet store or their fish room. I have yet to hear of Aquarist getting into the environmental fray on a local level. I say without question we should! Imagine how your city would be different if one hundred Aquarist/Naturalist showed up at a zoning meeting. Think of the impact if Aquarium Clubs adopted just one stream through the Department of Natural Resources Stream Team program. It would literally be life changing, for our waterways and their inhabitants.

Let me share a personal example of the impact a single Aquarist can have. A little over two years ago I was collecting for Orangethroat Darters in one of my favorite murky, slow Kansas prairie streams. This particular stream had an unusually colorful and durable Darter strain that made them excellent aquarium specimens. As I was working the riffles I began to notice a few Longear Sunfish moving lethargically across the surface. Wow, I thought, Longears free for the taking, what a lucky break. I scooped them up with my dipnet, put them in the bucket and kept working. I came back to my bucket about five minutes later to drop off some more fish and everything in it was dead. Suddenly the light went on! There was something in the water moving downstream killing everything in its path. I took a deep breath, grabbed my equipment, dashed to my car and drove as fast as I could downstream. I hoped I could beat this thing downstream and save a few fish and their unique genetic makeup from certain death. I drove a half a mile or so and went to work as fast as I could. I worked for almost an hour before the wall of death made its way to me. I collected samples of every type of fish I could until my buckets were filled past overflowing ! As I returned back up stream the creek was littered with hundreds of carcasses and the smell of death was heavy in the air. I reported the kill to the DNR and in two weeks returned each and every one of the survivors back to their creek. If an Aquarist had not happened to be there those fish and the unique strain of Orangethroat Darters might have been lost forever.

The Federal Government realizes the role the amateur Aquarist can play in species preservation. They have watched as easy to reproduce species like the Goodenough Gambusia, Maryland Darter and Blue Pike disappeared because the federal agencies did not have the resources or skills to effectively respond when the species hit the critical list. Serious Aquarist have those skills. They observe fish from a micro perspective, constantly observing the smallest detail to learn the intricacies of spawning and rearing a given species. Biologist observe from a macro level, while very important skill in resource management, it leaves them lacking many times in domestic rearing of a species. Together Biologist and serious Aquarist give a species an excellent opportunity to be successfully domestically reared! Think of the impact if every Aquarium club took it upon themselves to successfully rear and breed just one species of local fish. If they took the time to document their findings and make them available to local Biologist or Universities they could have a tremendous positive impact on a species chances for survival. If the unforeseen occurs there would be a ready source of specimens to repopulate the local waters!

In these days of shrinking habitats and dwindling natural resources Aquarist must take a more active stand. Many of us now realize there is a better way. Aquarist spend literally billions of dollars a year on their hobby. It's time we diverted some of that capital to our home waters. Instead of buying a couple more Cichlid's try something really different. Try a fishing license and a dipnet. You'll love being out of doors and you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you'll find. You might just fall in love with the local waters and what's hiding below the surface . I did and it has forever changed my perception of the Aquarium hobby.

Think of the tremendous fundamental change that would occur in the environmental movement if a small percentage of Aquarist, say three percent, got involved in keeping, collecting and rearing Native Fish. They would rival sport fisherman in numbers and impact . The Department of Natural Resources would take notice. What if these Aquarist joined organizations like NANFA, The Aquatic Conservation Society or the Desert Fishes Council. The influx of members, resources, energy and capital would be tremendous ! These organizations could help set public policy, do species propagation, restoration and community education. With the new members they would be better prepared to assist on projects like the Department of the Interiors endangered Madtom breeding site in Georgia. They could do so much, the effect would be immeasurable. Sadly at this point only a few dozen Aquarist in all of North America are making a difference through endangered species propagation. I must ask why? It's not the lack of skill that's the problem it's the lack of involvement. The Federal Agencies have asked for our input and help. Are we able to give any? Will you take the road less traveled and make a difference? The choice is yours. It is time to get busy, so get out of the easy chair grab a dipnet and see what's out there . The fish are waiting and the water is fine!

The author is involved with NFC and speaks and writes regularly about North American Native Fish. He can be reached at Robertrice at juno_com or 2213 Prytania Circle Navarre Florida 32566

Here is a non comprehensive list of places to get started:

Desert Fishes Council-dedicated to the study of fishes native to the Desert regions for further information please contact:

Desert Fishes Council
P.O Box 337
Bishop, CA 93514

Aquatic Conservation Network- dedicated to the domestic propagation of endangered species for further information please contact:

Attn.: Rob Huntley
540 Roosevelt Ave.
Ottawa Ontario Canada

Federal Agencies:

Seeking information on the successful spawning of Madtoms (Noturus sp.)

Biologist Greg Looney
C/O Dept. Of The Interior
Warm Springs Regional Fisheries
Center Route 1, Box 515
Warm Springs Georgia 31830-9712

Stream Team/Adopt A Stream Programs- Check with your states Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about this worthwhile program. On a regular basis you or your team will monitor a stream and sample its contents plus do regular cleanups. Supplies and support are usually supplied by the DNR or Program coordinator.


Robert Rice NFC  President
Save those Fishes,  Join the Native Fish Conservancy